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Where The Mideast Meets The Midwest Uneasily


Letter From Detroit

WHERE THE MIDEAST MEETS THE MIDWEST--UNEASILY

Shoppers stream in and out of the Iraqi meat shop, running their afternoon errands. With rapid strokes of razor-sharp knives, butchers slice up beef and lamb for customers, periodically wiping their bloodstained hands on white aprons. During a lull in business, talk turns to the war--and one butcher leans absently against the counter, fingering a rosary as he stares at the floor.

War-torn Baghdad? Guess again. This is Detroit, home to some 50,000 Iraqis, one of the largest concentrations outside the Mideast. Virtually all are Chaldean (cal-DEE-an), Roman Catholic Iraqis. A people often cited in the pages of the Old Testament, the Chaldeans have moved to Motown sporadically since the turn of the century, along with Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians, Muslim Iraqis, and other Mideasterners. All were attracted by the promise of good jobs and a more stable, prosperous life than they had at home.

THREATS. The war is intruding on that dream. Chaldeans here are suddenly the targets of anger, threats, and even attacks. Just before fighting began, two men dressed in army fatigues opened fire in Detroit on a Chaldean store owner as he got into his car. They missed. But there have been promises of more violence, such as the phone call another east side Detroit store owner received: If Iraqi forces "kill one American, we'll kill 200 of you." Chaldeans are feeling the hatred in less overt ways, too. Fares Liato, who owns a beer and wine store in suburban Detroit, has watched business drop 20% since the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

So far, no one in the Iraqi community has been seriously injured. But the tension is palpable. When I strolled into the S&J Meat Market on Seven Mile Road, conversation halted and a dozen suspicious eyes turned toward me. The first butcher I spoke to pretended not to know English. With gentle coaxing, one of the patrons, Rinne Salmo, began to talk, guardedly. "Everyone is praying for peace," he said. Meanwhile, a block down the street, the owners of the Iraqi Bakery painted over the name on the front of the building and removed the cantilevered sign over the door.

The tension has spilled over into other parts of the Detroit area's Arab-American community, which at 300,000 is the largest in the U. S. There has been so much animosity at the basketball games of suburban Dearborn's Fordson High School, where about half the students are Lebanese Americans, that conference officials considered canceling the rest of the season. And just after the war began, Detroit police reported that they had raided a crude back-alley bomb factory where teenagers were assembling explosives to blow up Arab-American-owned convenience stores in the city.

There is fear that the area's Arab population makes Detroit a prime target for terrorist attacks. On Jan. 18, Mayor Coleman Young declared a state of emergency and asked the governor to send Michigan National Guardsmen to help protect possible targets, such as Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the tunnel under the Detroit River to Canada. Young's move has outraged the Arab-American community here.

FAMILY TIES. Arabs began arriving in Detroit in the late 1800s. But the first big influx came between 1900 and 1924, when the lure of lucrative work in the city's blossoming auto factories attracted immigrants from all over the world, quickly tripling the city's total population to more than 1 million. There was a lull from 1924 to 1968, when U. S. laws restricted immigration. After they were relaxed, another surge of arrivals came from the Mideast.

In the past 22 years, the local Chaldean population jumped from 3,500 to about 50,000 as family members painstakingly earned enough money to send for wives, parents, and siblings. At one point, says financial planner Jamal Shallal, he lived with 15 relatives in a modest three-bedroom home on Detroit's west side. His father ran a neighborhood market nearby and employed most of the extended family. Such work has become a tradition here: Chaldeans own some 2,000 small markets and convenience stores in the area.

Not only were the Chaldeans pulled to America by jobs here, but they also felt pushed from home. In Iraq, where 90% of the population is Muslim, Chaldeans say they are treated as second-class citizens and are denied access to government and the best jobs. Since Saddam Hussein consolidated power in the 1970s, they say, repression against them has been stepped up.

But when allied forces moved on Jan. 16 to liberate Kuwait, feelings here were mixed, reflecting a tragic Catch-22. Chaldeans I spoke with described Saddam as a murderous tyrant whom they would like to see crushed. In fact, many made me swear not to use their names for fear relatives in Iraq would be harmed if copies of this story made it into the hands of authorities there. At the same time, they were apprehensive about the aerial onslaught intended to dislodge Saddam. As Jamal Shallal watched blurry news footage of the initial air attack on his hometown of Baghdad, "I felt real depressed because I knew somebody would have to die."

BROTHER VS. BROTHER. The Chaldeans stand to be two-time losers in the war. Many have relatives taking part in Desert Storm. Meanwhile, other family members are in the line of U. S. fire, many of them in the Iraqi armed forces. "Brothers are fighting each other," says Francis Boji, a contractor and real estate developer with two brothers-in-law and various cousins in Iraq, which he left in 1980. A customer at the S&J Meat Market explained how a cousin in the Iraqi army had been killed in Kuwait by stepping on a land mine. Another Chaldean at the market chimed in that he had a cousin in the U. S. Air Force in Saudi Arabia.

And the chill of terror travels far. A man who had served in Baghdad's army was telling me that his brother had been hanged in Iraq. We had been talking for about five minutes when he reflected, then reached over and gently ripped the page from my notebook, balled it up, and put it in his pocket.DAVID WOODRUFF; Woodruff has been covering Detroit for BUSINESS WEEK for two years.


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